Journeys
Chinese Take-Out
Reflections on two weeks spent touring the new America.



   

“China is the most unresolved nation of consequence in the world.”
— Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society

Travel vs. Tourism
 

Paul Fussell, in his nostalgic travel book Abroad, described the difference between travel and tourism: Travel is authentic and surprising; tourism, packaged and predictable. Fussell claimed that the former, in our market-driven, homogenized society, has been more or less superseded by the latter: not just cities but countries, too, have been turned into “pseudo-places or tourist commonwealths, whose function is simply to entice tourists and sell them things.”

My sentiments exactly. And why I tend to balk at the idea of going anywhere, especially to faraway, inconvenient places — like China. I was sure that a two-week, organized trip to China, which my husband had arranged when I was too distracted to notice, would be tourism with a vengeance.

I am pleased to report that I was wrong. My trip to China was an astounding experience, the after-effects still reverberating in my consciousness weeks after my return. China is such a big country, its history so long and complex, and the changes underway so enormous that not even the efforts of a multi-billion-dollar promotional campaign for the Olympics and an organized tour led by government-sponsored guides could turn the country into a pseudo-place. And yet — as I will explain below — it may mark a triumph of democracy when this transformation does happen.

 

China and Post-Civil War America 

What I encountered in my visit to China was, in some sense, less about the future than the past. Not the Chinese past, mind you. Although vestiges of that are still around, they are fast disappearing, and it takes a mixture of effort and serendipity to see them. The past of which I speak is that of our own country. For China today resembles America 150 years ago, with all the optimism, crudity, and excess associated with our nation at that relatively primitive but technologically expansive moment in history. A post-Cultural Revolution China can be compared to a post-Civil War U.S., both places characterized by the transformation from an agrarian economy to an urban one. China admittedly has a way to go. About 60 percent of its population is still farmers. But the shift from what was originally 95 percent some 30 years ago represents a massive change. The latest report that Chinese farmers are now allowed to sell their land rights promises to accelerate the process and begin the move, for good or ill, toward a corporate agribusiness.

To continue the analogy, the 2008 Beijing Olympics has played something of the same role as did the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Historians looking back at the Chicago Exposition have written “that its architecture is still the subject of admiration, and that it [epitomized] the accomplishments and aspirations of a younger American civilization upon the brink of world dominance and influence.” The same seems destined to be said of the Beijing Olympics, both in its architectural grandeur and its symbolic launching of China to prominence on the world stage.

 

Beyond Sightseeing: Conditions and Manners

   The Beijing Airport (not that you'd
   know you were in China).

We arrived at the Beijing airport. Fussell noted that airports, once distinctive locales, have now become homogenous environments, “pseudo-places” extraordinaire. The Beijing airport supports this view but also explodes it. It is like other world airports, to be sure, in being big, modern, and bustling — only it happens to be bigger, more modern, and more bustling than any airport I have ever seen. Designed by the venerable architect of mega-modernity, Norman Foster, it is the world airport writ large. Beijing airport is eye-catching and exciting in a way proper to a country in the process of remaking itself.

Beijing and its environs are replete with tourist attractions and we were dragged to them all: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall. All of these sights might be duplicated at Disney World (perhaps they are — that trip has been blocked from my memory by my daughter’s having cried non-stop through it), but the real versions are very big, and they are also inhabited by real people engaged in real life, a quality that is not easily duplicated by Disney.

After the requisite photo op at the Forbidden City, we were taken for a drive through the Hutong district, the old back streets of Beijing, each couple assigned a rickshaw driven by a youth on a bicycle. The rickshaw ride was paradoxical: It seemed like a tourist attraction, utterly orchestrated for our benefit, but if it was, it was a morally uncomfortable one, since it occurred on the back, quite literally, of a poor youth. Americans like rides and local color, but they don’t like exploitation and poverty. Yet there we were sitting side by side in the rickshaw as it was driven by a tattered young man with missing teeth who seemed inordinately grateful to receive the 10 yuan (about $1.30) we were told to give him for his trouble. For me, the ride provoked a visceral understanding of the class disparity that had led to the 1949 revolution. But it also brought the revelation that such class disparity is more endemic to travel than to tourism. The rickshaw ride was a remnant of an older way of life, and it would no doubt soon be superseded by a renovated version: a better-dressed rickshaw entrepreneur who would abbreviate the route and charge a great deal more money. That’s a scenic loss, perhaps, but a gain for democracy. Tourism may involve exploitation of many kinds, but it does not, I believe, require the degree of systemic exploitation, built on entrenched class divisions, that travel once did.

We glimpsed other remnants of the old in the process of disappearing. There are the non-Western toilets, which alternated with Western ones in the public bathrooms (“Western” means the toilet has a seat; “non-Western” means a hole in the ground). The fact that both still exist in the same facility would suggest that, for some, the more “primitive” toilet may be preferred, a postulate supported by my observation that many Chinese women chose the non-Western stalls. Our guide explained that this may be because of their fear of contracting AIDS from toilet seats, but the preference may also be a matter of muscular development. I noted that the Chinese have the ability to squat for long periods. One sees people squatting in front of shops or on the side of roads for hours with no apparent sense of discomfort. Such a position maintained for over 10 minutes by an American would mean a double knee replacement.

I was taken with the swagger of the monks padding about in burlap robes and spiffy suede sneakers, with the distinctive styles of the women in their filmy summer dresses, little half stockings, and heeled sandals, and with the legions of straw-hatted workers pruning the shrubbery near the Olympics site (laid-off workers, I was told, who are given this task in the manner of a WPA project). Everywhere we went, people expressed pride in China’s hosting the Games. Our guide took us by the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube where we snapped photographs, while Chinese farmers, who had journeyed to the capital from the country, snapped alongside us.

The Great Wall, awesome from a distance, was less so the closer we came to it. It was overrun with tourists and awash in merchandise. I was spared having to take the trek with the rest of our group when the heat, the crush of people, and the vendors hawking “I Climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts caused me to trip on my way up and topple into a faint. There was some talk of taking me to a hospital. Unfortunately, I revived (I would have liked to see a Chinese hospital from the inside, though my husband, a physician, did not support my curiosity), and I was carted off to a nearby restaurant to recuperate while the rest of the group marched off to climb innumerable steps to nowhere in the blistering heat. My husband went with them (“I am not about to come all the way to China and not climb the Great Wall”).

The only other clientele in the restaurant were the tour guides, taking a smoking break, which gave me chance to grill them. Li, our guide, had projected until this point a practiced if genial political correctness, spouting the familiar line that  “China is a socialist country with Chinese characteristics.” He now let down his guard (helped by a few shots of rice whiskey). Although he badmouthed the Tibetans (lazy and ungrateful) and downplayed Tiananmen Square (exaggerated casualties) — both views reflecting the government line — he also talked frankly about his father’s vile treatment during the Cultural Revolution, about the steep price of apartments (it was now possible to buy one of a habitable size, but the prices were becoming prohibitive), about his eagerness to go to the U.S. in March on one of the first-issued tourist visas. He acknowledged that, although censorship still exists, there are increasing gaps and loopholes in the system — the Internet makes most information accessible, and newspapers and magazines can be had by subscription. For a veteran of the tourist trade (he said he had worked for the Chinese International Tourist Service, the government tourist industry, for 25 years), he had a surprising enthusiasm and optimism about the future.

 

Families 

That afternoon we went to the Beijing zoo to see the pandas, which had been evaluated from the city of Chongqing, their usual home, during the recent earthquake. One can see pandas just as well at the National Zoo in Washington (“a panda is a panda is a panda,” to adapt Gertrude Stein). But the zoo visit did give an opportunity to observe Chinese families, more interesting than pandas.

The Beijing zoo (not that you'd know
you were in China).

China has always been a family-oriented culture, as any reading of Confucius will tell you: “The strength of a nation derives form the integrity of a home.” Elders are cared for and revered, and the link between and among generations highly regarded.

But what I saw by looking at the families around us at the zoo was how this age-old institution was undergoing radical change. It is well known that soon after the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government, in an effort to limit its unwieldy population, stipulated that couples have only one child. But its one thing to know about the policy, another to see its effects first-hand. Not only does the one-child policy represent a curb on the use of resources, it also changes the direction in which the family is oriented. The Confucian reverence for the past and for ancestors becomes reversed: The child becomes the focus of attention and reverence. At the zoo, we saw grandparents and parents clustered around a toddler in split pants (in China, toilet training takes the form of simply leaving children free to relieve themselves at will, and clothing is designed accordingly) — this little individual was the center of their world. Moreover, by limiting the family to one offspring, a Westernized view of the individual springs into being. The old maxim that life is cheap in China thus no longer holds as the child becomes the repository of all sorts of inchoate hopes and dreams. One of our local guides explained that her 15-year-old is expected to work hard in school and to take special lessons in swimming, English, and music — and the expectations for performance are high. “Yesterday, he come home with 91 on English test,” she mused into her microphone, digressing from her enumeration of the sights outside the bus window. “His friend got 98. I say: ‘Why you not do as good?’ He tell me he not talk to me if I push like that. So I try to be less pressuring.” She sighed. All the mothers in the tour group sighed along with her.

In a more abstract sense, the one-child policy leads to the idea that the self has heightened meaning — and this self is a more urbanized one. Indeed, one place where the one-child policy is relaxed is in the countryside, where the government realizes that farmers need male children to work the land; thus a second child is permitted if the first turns out to be a girl. In the city, however, no such dispensation is allowed (except for minorities groups like the Tibetans, creating another source of hostility toward this group).

Not only has the one-child policy helped initiate a more individualistic, urban perspective but it has also had an oddly feminist (or at least female-friendly) effect on the culture. In the early years of the policy, the birth of a girl was lamented — many women had abortions or abandoned girl babies, which is why people who adopted children from China got girls. But the ratio of men to women is now 130 to 100, turning women into valuable assets. If one looks at the girl babies in the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, one sees that their families are deep into a girly-girl esthetic. There are the headbands, the pink crocheted vests, the little booties — all the stuff of doting parentage, and of the princess culture that characterizes upwardly mobile American families.

Children in China are part of the economic boom — they are the country’s most precious resource — and one that their parents are not about to sell cheap.
 
 

Terra Cotta Warriors and Other Curiosities


   The Terra Cotta Warriors (which, yeah,
   let you know you're in China).
A two-hour plane ride brought us to Xi’an, the city where a vast army of clay figures was unearthed in 1974. They were buried in 210 B.C. around the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China (the tomb itself is yet to be excavated). When the figures were found they had been broken into pieces, and the government has been funding their repair for the past 35 years. Eight thousand warriors, many with horses, are calculated to have been buried with the emperor, and though only a fraction of that number have been excavated and restored, those that have are wonderful to behold. Still, I found our local guide as interesting in her way as this terra cotta army. She was a fetching woman in a black pullover, tight black pants, and Chanel eyeglasses, whose cell phone didn’t stop ringing. It turns out that she was the guide for the Clintons during their visit to Xi’an in 1998. “Bill was very charming,” she reported. “He picked up my handkerchief when I dropped it. When that thing happened with Monica I was not surprised.” And Hillary? “She seemed to be what we call a Dragon Lady.”

In the corner of the gift shop near the excavation site, we saw a small, leathery old man in round tortoise shell eyeglasses signing books. He, we learned, was the farmer who discovered the first fragments of the terra cotta army while digging a well on his property 35 years ago. During the period of the Cultural Revolution, his job was to sell tickets to the site. Now, he signs books. The celebrity culture has come to China.

That evening we were taken to a “cultural show,” billed as “a very beautiful and enjoyable presentation of traditional dance, music, and costume.” In truth, it was more like a Las Vegas production circa 1965. One expected the dancers to suddenly shed their hot pink spandex dresses and reveal pasties and G-strings. But our guide loved it!

 

Growth 

From Xi’an, we took a plane to Chongqing, the largest metropolitan area in China. The comparison with 19th-century America is most striking with regard to this area. If one considers that Chicago grew from a population of 30,000 in 1850 to well over a million and a half by 1900, one sees a comparable jump in Chongqing where there were 500,000 only 20 years ago and now 32 million. It is difficult to say whether the high-rise buildings which clutter the landscape are being put up or torn down. It seems both are going on at the same time as some of the modern buildings, shoddily constructed in the early years of industrialization, are being renovated or razed, while new buildings are being erected. The city is too hilly for bicycles and too rocky for a subway, so it is clogged with cars, and our tour bus literally crawled along through an urban landscape reminiscent of Bladerunner.
 

Bureaucracy 

At the port of Chongqing we crowded onto the cable car that would carry us to a river boat, the Victoria Anna, that would take us down the Yangtze River. But just as the car was about to move off from the platform it was stopped by a group of disheveled security officers who looked like they’d been hijacked from a Chinese sitcom. Something was wrong. It seemed that a questionable fluid had been detected in someone’s carry-on (why this was detected now, after we had passed through security, was not made clear, but it fit with the general sense of confusion and ineptitude). There was much excited chatter, and soon voices were raised as a quarrel escalated between the security officers and the guides. Our guide seemed particularly disgusted that a minor procedural detail was delaying the launch of the cable car. The temperature in Chongqing is never pleasant — frigid in winter, hot and humid in summer — and on this day it must have been close to 100 degrees as we stood packed together in the cable car. What could be done to appease the increasingly bellicose officials? I extracted a tiny vial of eye drops from my purse and passed it along, where it was inspected closely by the scowling little man who seemed to be in charge. There was more chatter, punctuated by more yelling. Finally, we were allowed to proceed, the eye drops a minor sacrifice to Chinese bureaucracy.

 

Chinese Tourists 

When we boarded the cruise ship that would take us through the famous Three Gorges and to the site of the dam being built to regulate the Yangtze waters, we were surprised to see that many of the passengers were Chinese. These were not the newly wealthy Chinese who have made their money in real estate or other sorts of speculation, but lower-middle-class workers, mostly men in their 20s and 30s dressed in polyester slacks and polo shirts (the dearth of women was apparently a casualty of the single-child policy).

Once again, the resemblance to an earlier America was apparent. These Chinese were energetic and uncouth — qualities that the British chronicler Francis Trollope had noted of our citizens during her visit to the U.S. in the 19th century. They were inclined to spit, speak loudly, and smoke (though no smoking was allowed), and to play raucous games of mahjong and wild card games which required, unaccountably, multiple decks of cards. They had obviously saved their money in order to take this trip and were intent on enjoying themselves. During dinner, they ran over to our table to click glasses, drunk as much on sharing the dining room with American tourists as on the mediocre Chinese wine that they consumed copiously all evening.

The approach of the gorges brought everyone on deck, and even a determined Fussell-ite like myself could not help but be awed by the towering cliffs rising up on either side. At one point we disembarked to take a small boat through the lesser gorges, and as we moved through the quiet waters we heard eerie music coming from nearby: some of the native people were singing from caves and canoes, paid by the government to do so for the benefit of tourists like us. Along the sides of the gorges were periodic signs marking the 175-meter point at which the water would rise above sea level when the dam was completed. 

We discussed with the guides where the population displaced by this massive project had gone. Some, we were told, had been moved higher up into the mountains; others, to the cities to embark on a new way of life. The displacement of millions of people in order to build a massive project of this kind could only be possible under a totalitarian government where no one could hire a lawyer to protect their property rights or get additional compensation for mental suffering.

 

The Countryside

On the way from the boat to the airport — where we would fly to our final destination, Shanghai — we took a detour into the countryside. Our guide had arranged for a visit with an elderly couple who farmed a small plot of land in the area. Their home was the most humble of clay huts. The old man sat in the bedroom, incapacitated by arthritis. He insisted that I sit down on the little chair next to him, pointing to his legs as an excuse for not rising to greet me. A picture of Mao lay half-buried in a clutter of old plastic bags, beads, bowls, and tin cans which lay on a table in the corner (the only portrait of Mao I’d see on display, beside the one on Tiananmen Square that I saw during our visit). There was a photograph of the old man as a young military officer propped on a wooden chest near the slatted bunk bed that he and his wife shared; an array of implements and talismans hung from nails on the walls. In a side room, a gaggle of chickens pecked at corn on the dirt floor. “Their children live across the highway in the high rises and work in the city,” our guide explained. 

The couple seemed to get pleasure from our visit, no doubt owing in part to some unseen remuneration (“It’s taken care of,” our guide said). It occurred to me that these people might be a Potemkin Village couple, but if so, it was unclear to what purpose. They were not exemplary in any respect except in the placidity of their mood. They were poor, their conditions primitive, and their families decimated by modernity. No clear lesson could be derived from visiting them that might be useful to the new China except that they were the relics of what was being swept up in the tidal wave of change.

 

Traffic 

It took us two hours to make the eight-mile trip from the airport to our hotel in Shanghai. The sheer crush of cars was both exhilarating and exhausting. I realized that the relative ease of navigating Beijing was because half the cars were off the road (odd license plates alternating with even), as the edict for the Olympics had been extended for the ParaOlympics. Fortunately, both cities have subway systems, which are easy to navigate. Nonetheless, we were often confined to the tour bus while in Shanghai, which gave us ample opportunity to inspect the skyline and the surrounding landscape. Here we saw first-hand the extent of new housing construction and, more striking still, the spectacle of the business district and its hundreds of skyscrapers. They have sprung up almost overnight, and they dazzle not just in number but in originality and variety of design. L.A. and Las Vegas seem tame, even dowdy, by comparison.

At one point our bus, as it edged forward after being parked for a short period, was hit by a passing motorist. What ensued is presumably common in China: Many individuals crowded the scene to discuss what had happened and who was to blame. There was much pointing and yelling. Other cars stopped to inspect and give their views. Finally, a police officer arrived, looked at the bus and the car, decided who was in the wrong and who would have to pay damages, and sent everyone on their way.

Our hotel in Shanghai was in the so-called “French Concession,” a charming tree-lined area of the city where one imagines Marlene Dietrich might have had assignations. A park near the hotel had ballroom dancing in the evening and Tai Chi in the morning. These mannerly communal activities contrasted the wildness of the cars on the streets, which had no concern at all for the hapless pedestrian. Practically mowed down by a careening vehicle as I turned the corner during my first venture on foot, I was afraid to cross the street for the rest of the afternoon.

 

Buying and Selling

During the reign of Mao, prices were fixed, but then tourists were few and strictly cordoned off from contact with the people. All that has changed. During my visit to China, I saw few beggars but hordes of people hawking merchandise. This new entrepreneurial culture is perhaps most dramatically on display at the bazaar attached to the Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai. The bazaar is a crowded collection of shops selling Chinese staples: pearls, silk, jade, as well as modern accessories such as watches, scarves, and handbags, not to mention the standard tourist souvenirs of T-shirts, hats, and Olympics paraphernalia.

Walking through the bazaar, I was continually being accosted by salespeople pressing fabric into my hands, waving strands of pearls, pointing to hanging parchments with Chinese calligraphy or watercolor washes. Sometimes, I was motioned to the back of a small shop, where a door opened into a closet-like space lined with knock-off designer handbags.

Haggling is the order of the day. This aspect of the country was at first difficult for me to understand, but once I did, I became enamored of the duel of wills and cunning that it demands. 

“No, no, I’m not interested,”  I said after glancing at a silk blouse, embroidered with pink and white peonies, the national flower, which I liked very much.

“Look, lady, for you I give discount. What you say to . . .” Out came the calculator and the relentless salesgirl (the most aggressive salespeople I encountered were girls of about 19) let her little fingers play over the calculator keys to display another 10 percent off the “discounted” price. “480 yuan” — again, the fingers played over the keys, dividing by 6.8 to display 70 — the price in dollars. 

I shook my head and moved to walk away.

“What you want to pay?” asked the girl sharply, pushing the calculator at me.

I chose a price — 100 yuan (about $14). 

She looked stricken and shook her head: “Oh no, lady, this is silk.” She touched the embroidery: “Made by hand. This very fine, very good.”

I backed away apologetically.

“Oh, but lady, I tell you what, for you, 350 yuan.” 

I continued to walk.

“Lady, lady, OK, 250.”  

I walked on and had already stopped at the next stall, only to have her to tug on my sleeve and agree to my price. Later, of course, I felt guilty for paying so little, until I learned that someone in our group had bought a similar blouse at another shop for $10.

The local guide had already made the pro forma announcement that we should buy only in the stores he took us to: government-owned establishments where bargaining occurs but only up to a point; prices aren’t allowed to fall below a certain prescribed level. “You can buy on the streets,” he said, “but the clothes will fall apart and the pearls are junk. Buy there for the friends you don’t like.” (We heard this line so often that we concluded it was in the tour guide training manuals.) In fact, a glance around the shops in the bazaar showed that much of the same merchandise was for sale there as in the government-owned stores. 

The day before we were scheduled to leave for home, someone unearthed the telephone number of a tailor in Shanghai, said to make clothes for NBA players for a very good price. The tailor, who went by the single name of Jason, arrived in our hotel that evening and proceeded to measure us all for cashmere coats and suits. He charged $200 for every item, without making distinctions, and arrived the next day, with the garments completed. I can only speak for myself when I report that my red cashmere jacket is the most beautiful garment in my wardrobe.

Marx would have said that people like Jason and the salespeople I dealt with in the bazaar were members of the “petty bourgeoisie.” According to his historically determined idea, they were destined to fall into the proletariat and take part in the eventual revolution against the captains of industry who remained. But in China, things seem to be going the other way. Capitalists are emerging out of the proletariat rather than sinking into it. The revolution is behind them, and an entrepreneurial future lies ahead. 

 

Some Final Thoughts

China today is a vast bazaar of a country. The government is bargaining with its people — how lax is it willing to be? How much freedom can it afford to give? How much can it ignore in the way of infringements of rules and assertions of self? 

But there is also the external side of China’s bargaining. For the country is a product, too, displayed to the world via the Olympics and organized groups like mine. Tourists are now coming in droves, visiting the sights, buying the pearls and silks, listening to the stories. (No tour guide worth his rudimentary English education is without a convoluted tale about emperors’ concubines, who seem to be to Chinese mythology what cowboys are to ours). Then there are the large-scale entrepreneurs buying up the real estate (now, for the first time, available to foreigners at the same price as to the Chinese) and the multinational corporations building new skyscrapers in new and more fantastic configurations. How much can China afford to show — and to sell — to these various visitors and investors?

The country is bargaining about all of this right now: offering a price, and then discounting it. It is a dictatorship haggling with democracy, giving a little here and there — to its people, to tourists, to foreign investors. The disappearance of Mao’s photograph is part of that haggling process; so is the willingness of guides to talk about what their parents suffered during the Cultural Revolution. The whole point of denigrating that earlier period appears to be in order to praise the renovated values and goals of modern China.

How long can the bargaining continue? Will the country devolve into the sort of gangster-ish entrepreneurism we see in Russia, or be pulled back under despotic government control? Or is it possible that China will come to some sort of agreement on the price to be paid for doing business with the larger world and close the deal on what it means to be a superpower? If that happens, it is likely to become a country more like us: more free and more market-driven and, as a result, more packaged and predictable — more, that is, like Fussell’s notion of the pseudo-place — and thus less worth flying 13 hours to see. • 3 November 2008

SOURCES: Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars  by Paul Fussell (Oxford University Press, 1982); World Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 By Noman Bolotin and Christine Laing (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002); The Changing Face of China from Mao to Market by John Gittings (Oxford University Press, 2005).




Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She can be reached at cohenpm@drexel.edu.

Images by jasmin0916 (Creative Commons); g33kgrrl (Creative Commons); owltoucan (Creative Commons); and AndrewEick (Creative Commons).



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The Great Wall
Awesome from a distance, less so up close.
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